The Cable

Situation Report: New docs detail failures to stop war in the Balkans; Kunduz report could come this week; Congress looking into allegations of Pentagon cooking the books; ISIS in terror war with al Qaeda; Putin to Iran; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The past is never past. Somewhere around 100,000 people died during the war between Bosnian, Serb, and Croatian factions in the early 1990s, a bloody conflict that uprooted huge swaths of humanity and forever redrew the map of the region. The still-uneasy peace forged by the Dec. 14, 1995 ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The past is never past. Somewhere around 100,000 people died during the war between Bosnian, Serb, and Croatian factions in the early 1990s, a bloody conflict that uprooted huge swaths of humanity and forever redrew the map of the region. The still-uneasy peace forged by the Dec. 14, 1995 signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in Paris is being marked by the declassification of stacks of White House, State Department, and foreign government cables “detailing the diplomatic indecision and disarray” that marked the international community’s response to the bloodshed, FP’s Colum Lynch writes, a result of the early access he was given to the collection before its public release.

The docs show a new and uncertain administration led by President Bill Clinton stumbling through its first major crisis, Lynch writes, while providing startling detail on a series of half-measures by the international community that allowed the slaughter of civilians to continue for months while U.N. peacekeepers stood by.

Straight stories. Late last week, FP’s Dan De Luce dropped the scoop that powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill have launched a probe into whether U.S. military leaders have been skewering intelligence reports from Afghanistan to make the war appear more successful than it actually has been.

The investigation comes just as the Pentagon Inspector General has started poring over years of internal documents detailing how the U.S. Central Command reacted to the rise of the Islamic State and the disintegration of the Iraqi army in 2014. So far, investigators have found that “significant changes” had been made to the initial assessments of the situation on the ground before the reports made it back to Washington, the New York Times reports, in an effort to recast events in a more positive light. There is evidence that some documents had been deleted before they could be handed over to investigators, congressional staffers say, in what is shaping up to be a potentially ugly episode with wide-ranging implications for the military leadership of the U.S. Central Command and beyond.

More paper coming. As we await those investigations, SitRep has learned that the preliminary report into the tragic Oct. 3 U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan may see the light of day as early as this week. A Defense Department official says the report — which will detail who the U.S. military believes it killed in the strike, and how — will be narrowly focused on the casualty piece of the investigation, while leaving larger issues of culpability to another, larger report currently working its way through the system. The completion and release of that more intensive report isn’t expected for weeks, if not months, the defense official said.

In the days following the attack, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of the war in Afghanistan, said that the casualty report would be available within 30 days, a deadline which came and went earlier this month. But it follows on the Oct. 24 admission by Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, spokesman for the Kabul-based military command, that investigators had “determined that the reports of civilian casualties were credible.” Doctors Without Borders says that the attack killed at least thirty people, including 13 staff members, 10 patients and seven others who are still awaiting identification. The aid group has continued to demand an independent investigation, outside of the military command, into what happened.

Grim news. On Friday, the U.S. Central Command disclosed that a U.S. Air Force A-10 attack plane killed four Iraqi civilians in a March 13 strike, one who whom was likely a child. The attack on an Islamic State checkpoint near al Hatra was deemed a good hit, FP’s Paul McLeary writes, since it was a legitimate military target. Footage of the strike captured by the plane’s gun camera only captures images of the civilians in the seconds after the plane fired its weapons, meaning there was nothing the aviator could have done to prevent their deaths.

The rare admission of wrongdoing in the 14-month old air war over Iraq and Syria comes just as the air war targeting the Islamic State has heated up considerably, with Russia and France joining in the bombing in Syria, and American jets for the first time concentrating on hitting the Islamic State’s profitable oil infrastructure. But there have been civilian casualties along the way. Spokesman Col. Pat Ryder said on Friday that 26 similar cases of civilian casualties are currently under review.

We’re back for the short holiday week — in the States at least — and wherever you may be this morning, we appreciate you checking in. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Paris

Belgian authorities ordered the city of Brussels into a lockdown over the weekend as it searched in vain for Salah Abdeslam, a suspected member of the terrorist cell from which carried out the Paris attacks. Officials asked the city’s residents to stay indoors as police and soldiers fanned out throughout the city, conducting 19 raids and arresting 16 people but found no weapons or explosives.

The brutal attacks in Paris and on the Russian airliner flying from Egypt last month represent a deadly evolution in how the Islamic State operates, “and it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat,” the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt writes. Distressingly, the attack also may signal a brutal competition for influence and prestige among the global jihadi base, as al Qaeda pushes to keep up. For example, indications are that the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was carried out by two Qaeda-linked groups, leading one European counterterrorism official to remark, “the race is on between ISIS and Al Qaeda to see who can attack the West the best.”

Mali

Islamist militants from the al-Qaeda-linked group Al-Mourabitoun have issued an audio recording claiming responsibility for the shooting spree at the Radisson Blu hotel that killed 19 in Mali on Friday, according to the AP. The tape claims two fighters from the group carried out the attack, although reports from the scene indicate that as many as 10 attackers could have been involved. Another group, the Macina Liberation Front, issued a separate claim of responsibility for the attacks, saying it worked with militants from Ansar Dine to carry out the mass shootings.

Syria

The 50 special operations troops that President Obama has ordered to deploy to Syria last month “will be going in very soon,” according to Brett McGurk, the administration’s special envoy for the fight against the Islamic State. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, McGurk said the troops would not have been able to carry out their mission of organizing local forces for a push against the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa but that “the conditions now are in place to do that.”

Europe

European leaders have agreed to extend the sanctions slapped on Russia that were ordered in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea for another six months. The U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Italy all agreed to the extension on the sidelines of the G20 meeting last week. The U.S. and its European allies have said that Russia must abide by the terms of the Minsk agreement and allow Ukraine to regain full sovereignty over its territory before they’ll agree to ease up on sanctions.

Ukraine

Explosions have knocked out electrical pylons on the Crimean peninsula, currently occupied by Russian troops, plunging the area into darkness and prompting officials there to declare a state of emergency. Pictures of the damaged pylons were posted on social media with Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags, according to the BBC. The Daily Telegraph reports that a group calling itself the “Civil Blockade of Crimea,” including members of the peninsula’s Tatar ethnic minority, also tried to stop Crimean repair personnel from fixing the damaged electrical infrastructure.

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Iran to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani during his first trip to the country in nearly a decade, according to Agence France Presse. Putin is nominally in town for a gas exporters’ summit,  but talks about Syria and the two countries’ mutual support for the Assad regime’s war against rebels there look set to dominate the agenda.

North Korea

Five years ago, North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans. Sunday marked the anniversary of the attack and North Korea marked the occasion by threatening “merciless retaliation” if South Korea carries out live fire artillery exercises on islands near the border between the two countries.

The Interwebs

A spokesperson for Twitter tells the Daily Dot that a crowdsourced list of accounts purportedly associated with the Islamic State compiled by the hacker collective Anonymous is “wildly inaccurate.” The hacktivist collective Anonymous declared war on the Islamic State’s online presence after the attacks in Paris, to much public acclaim. But to anyone familiar with the group’s recent history of comically inept hacking campaigns, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Anons falsely labeled the progressive, LGBT-supportive mayor of a Tennessee town a member of the Klu Klux Klan during its “Operation KKK” earlier this month and claimed Jihadica, a website of scholarly analysis of jihadism, was linked to terrorists during its “OpCharlieHebdo” in retaliation for the January attacks against a French satirical magazine.

China

Chinese troops used a flamethrower to flush out 10 knife-wielding militants hiding in a cave in Xinjiang province, according to the South China Morning Post. Chinese authorities found the men during an operation targeting the perpetrators of an attack on a mine in the province. China’s state-run PLA Daily said the soldiers used the flamethrower after stun grenades and tear gas failed to push the men out of the cave, killing all 10 as they exited the hideout.

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